Storytelling is the world’s oldest—and most effective—form of communication, and yet, our industry still sometimes struggles to get it right.
“We may be writing press releases or board presentations or employee newsletters, but at the heart of all of that, we’re still communicating with humans, and humans love to hear and tell stories,” explains Jason Anthoine, managing founder of Audacity, an internal communication advisory firm based in Atlanta,. “So why not use that technique to share whatever it is that we need to share?”
As an example, look at how Jason McCarthy, a former Green Beret and founder and CEO of GORUCK, a high-performance apparel and footwear company based in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, creatively leverages a vacation story to sell his clothing. He vividly brings to life the way his fast-drying, tough clothing also have value for the average person—not just adrenaline junkies and jocks.
“There’s Irish blood running through my veins and I have the skin to match, so the sun and I are at odds wherever I go, all the time,” he writes on the GORUCK blog. “But that doesn’t stop me. Em and I were in Cartagena, yes of Romancing the Stone, and the sun was beating down and it was Africa hot. I’m no stranger to sunscreen but eventually, it wears off and I fry. Been there done that, no thanks. So in her words, I’m that guy, and quite ridiculous looking, on a beach in paradise in my Full Zip Tough Hoodie. No t-shirt on underneath, and no apologies, just the hoodie — whenever there’s sun, it’s my go-to…. This one day was the only day on our entire trip I wore shorts, and even though every time I cracked a fresh beer I put more sunscreen on my knees, they fried and peeled and went through that whole drama for the next two weeks. Fun….Emily smiled and told me I should’ve worn my Simple Pants, too.”
Stories are effective because they fuse rational information to human emotion. As a result, the message you’re trying to convey is more likely to resonate with audiences because it’s wrapped inside a well-crafted story—and it’s more likely to stick for the long-term.
Research has long shown the connection between story and memory. A 1980 study at the University of California found that people read narrative text twice as fast and remember it twice as long as expository text. Even earlier, Stanford University researchers in 1969 showed that people are able to recall lists of random words up to seven times better if they first put the words into a story rather than simply memorizing them.
Translating corporate facts and messages into stories, however, isn’t simply a matter of tossing in a random anecdote or substituting passive verbs with active ones. It’s an art form that takes strategic thinking, time and effort.
Ready to get started? Try these six ways to help make your corporate messaging come alive.
Think big picture
Don’t just tell a story for story’s sake, advises Anthoine. It needs to ultimately illustrate your message, your values or your place in the larger world. “A story should be authentic, it should feel natural and it should be from the perspective of why what you’re communicating matters,” he explains.
You can tell a story about almost anything: a revamped mission, a product, a missed revenue target, a safety record, a new hire. Unfortunately, the compelling story is not always obvious, says Marsha Bayless, Ph.D., professor and chair of business communications and legal studies at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. “You’re going to have to dig a little deeper: ‘How did this come about? Why? Who was involved? What did they go through to get to this point?’” Bayless explains. “By finding the story behind the message, you make the business, the product, the people and the information more personal and more compelling.”
A balance of rich description, detail and action to “advance” the story is important to grabbing your reader’s attention, says Lizzie Palmer, a trainer, facilitator and brand consultant based in London who coaches business communicators and executives on how to incorporate storytelling techniques into pitches, presentations and other materials.
The flower in the pot on the window, for example, is made far more vivid if described as the geranium in the flowerpot on the windowsill, Palmer explains. Without changing the word count, you’ve enabled readers to “see” the red flowers, rich green leaves and terracotta of the flowerpot. “If you can paint a vivid picture that captures the imagination of the audience, then the messages you are wanting to convey are much more likely to stick, which means your audience will be moved to do something as a result.”
A good story needs conflict to truly engage readers and inspire them to keep reading to the end. That means your protagonist has to struggle and overcome some type of challenge or obstacle. Let’s say the story is about how a company was the first to bring the next battery iteration to market. How did the inventors come up with the idea? Were they racing against the clock or other competitors to get it to market first? How did they succeed?
“When your story includes conflict, you have an opportunity for the company, its employees or even its customers to be viewed as a hero in the story—someone who somehow rose to the challenge,” says Anthoine.
Keep it simple
When writing a story, there’s a tendency to keep adding details, but you want to continually look for ways to make the story tighter and more concise, says Bayless. “When you get it down to its most basic elements—the character, the conflict, the action and the ‘so what?’—you’ve made it more relatable, more memorable and easier to share.”
Align to strategy
Finally, communication teams need to sync their stories to their organization’s strategic goals. A truly great story is a corporate asset, and it should be treated as such, Bayless emphasizes. Instead of going with your first draft, stop and ask these strategic questions: Who is the best audience for this story, and how can we tweak it or tell it differently to better reach other audiences? How can we test the story and improve it? How can it be used within the larger corporate communication plan? How should we tell the story—in text or in a video? When and how should we introduce it for the biggest impact? How can we get influencers, media and even employees to share the story more widely?
“When you do that, you get a story that has legs,” Bayless says, “and it has the potential to become an instantly recognizable and memorable part of your corporate identity.”